Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people (Matthew 4:12-23 – NRSV)
(The Gospel for today may be the shorter version – Matthew 4:12-17.)
Today’s text is a good example of how Matthew and Luke both depend on Mark. Matthew and Luke also share another source – commonly referred to as “Q”, for “Quelle”, the German word for “Source” – and each has his own unique source. Thus the three synoptic Gospels are both alike and different in their presentations of the Good News of Jesus.
Matthew 4:12-17 draws on Mark 1:14-15 and has a parallel text in Luke 4:14–15.
Matthew 4:18-22 draws on Mark 1:16–20 and has a parallel text in Luke 5:1–11.
Matthew 4:23-25 draws on Mark 1:35–39 and has a parallel text in Luke 4:44 and 6:17–19)
This text follows on immediately after Matthew’s account of the Temptations in the Wilderness – see Matthew 4:1-11. Matthew begins the story of Jesus’ ministry here. Importantly he makes it clear that Jesus and his ministry fulfill the prophecies of old. Like each of the Synoptics he situates that ministry in Galilee: “Galilee is the place in which Jesus’ public ministry began. Except for the final days in Jerusalem his ministry was confined to Galilee according to the Synoptic Gospels” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MINN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 73).
“Since his community probably lived near (or even in) Galilee, this geographical setting would have carried special significance for Matthew’s readers” (Daniel Harrington, op cit, 74).
There are three distinct sections to Matthew 4:12-23:
- 4:12-17 – Jesus’ return to Nazareth after John’s arrest; the references to Isaiah 8:22–9:1 indicate that this has been as God willed it.
- 4:18–22 – Jesus calls his first disciples: Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, the manner of which is unusual as it was “customary in Jewish circles that disciples should search out a teacher (as in John 1:35–42). Here, however, Jesus takes the initiative by choosing and summoning those whom he wanted to be his disciples” (Daniel Harrington, op cit, 74-5). We are thus introduced to Jesus’ inner-circle wo will be there throughout the Gospel.
- 4:23–25 – a summary statement of the ministry of Jesus and the response of the people; this sets the context for the paradigmatic Sermon on the Mount which follows – seem Matthew 5:1-7:29.
“While modern readers cannot experience the same kind of geographical identification that Matthew’s first readers did, they can appreciate the major theological themes of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ early ministry in Galilee: the close relation between John and Jesus, Jesus’ movements in accord with God’s will, the extraordinary attractiveness of Jesus in calling his first disciples, and the positive response to him from many different areas. Nevertheless the geographical dimension should not be neglected in preaching and teaching, for it is part of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Without attention to the concrete historical circumstances of Jesus’ ministry, Christian faith runs the risk of being misperceived as a body of abstract propositions. All Christians need a basic familiarity with the land of Israel” (Ibid)
John had been arrested: The Greek word paradidōmi – here translated as “arrest” – means literally “hand over”, “deliver” or “betray”. The same verb is used a number of times in Matthew’s passion narrative – see for example Matt 26:15, 16 & 21. The links between John the Baptist and Jesus are profound.
Capernaum: This town is on the northwest shore of the Sea of Galilee in the general area allotted to the tribes of Zebulon and Naphtali. It is some distance from Nazareth, which is in the center of Lower Galilee. Capernaum becomes the home-base of Jesus’ ministry. This does not prevent him expressing a severe prophecy concerning Capernaum – see Matthew 11:23.
the kingdom of heaven has come near: See Mark 1:14b–15. Matthew uses the characteristic expressions, “kingdom of heaven” rather than “kingdom of God”. Jesus’ message echoes that of John the Baptist – see Matthew 3:2.
fish for people: Clearly a call to mission. Given the importance of the fishing business on the Sea of Galilee at that time – and these men owned their own boats and equipment – those first disciples are depicted as leaving a secure and stable lifestyle for something that could hardly be said to be secure and stable. Their decision is based entirely on their experience of Jesus.
followed: A Greek term used in the New Testament to specifically describe “discipleship” is used here akoloutheō. The lack of preparation (there is no indication they knew about Jesus beforehand) and the quickness of their response (“immediately”) highlight the attractiveness and persuasiveness of Jesus.
In todays’ Gospel – Matthew 4:12-29 – we have an account of the first disciples responding to the invitation of Jesus: “Follow me!” As Matthew tells it, “immediately they left their nets and followed him”. The moment shocks – and frightens? – us. What could possibly justify these fishermen leaving family, village, and a stable and secure life?
Two other biblical “invitations” help us understand: Abraham – “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1); Moses – “God called to him … ‘come … I will send you … I will be with you’” (Exodus 3:1-12). Indeed, the Jewish people become God’s people by joining Moses in his response to the invitation.
Moses and the people begin to find their identity when they “set out” into the wilderness. They slowly discover – and must never forget – that pilgrims is what they are. But the human desire to “arrive” and “settle down” remains. Restlessness therefore becomes a sign of fidelity. Doubt too. Surrender and letting go will be never-ending tasks. The felt need for control will always gnaw at their hearts.
There are no maps of the wilderness. If you go there, you are absolutely dependent on the one who knows the way. To respond to God’s invitation is to agree to live in uncharted places. Sometimes to go where you would rather not go – see John 21:18-19. However, in the ways of God, even the wilderness can be abundantly fruitful. It is in the wilderness the Covenant is forged. The wilderness is the place of possibility. The ‘I AM” is possibility – the possibility that meets the deepest yearnings of the human heart.
Emily Dickinson’s poem, “I dwell in Possibility”, offers a helpful image. She reflects on the possibilities of poetry in contrast to the limits of rational analysis and mere prose. In poetry, she says, there is “The spreading wide my narrow Hands/ To gather Paradise”. Poetry speaks the unspeakable. It conjures what we desire but do not yet know it. In this way, poetry can realign our lives. It meets the heart’s desire to know. “The heart has its reasons, of which reason knows nothing; we feel it in many things” (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, J.M.Dent & Sons, 59). And St Paul reminds us: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).
St Gregory of Nyssa (335-395) tells us that God “created human beings in order to make them share in his own fulness” (Olivier Clément, The Roots of Christian Mysticism, New York, NY: New City Press, 1995, 81). The Incarnation is about the impossible becoming possible. If it were not for God’s being-in-the-flesh, we could not “share in his own fulness”. The possibility of the I AM is what we want. It’s the only possibility capable of satisfying the yearnings of the human heart.